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Sledge, Fighters end Rakuten’s season

Reach Japan Series for third time in four years

by Kaz Nagatsuka

SAPPORO — Terrmel Sledge literally dealt the Eagles a sledgehammer blow.

The Game 1 hero stunned the masses once again with a long ball late to help the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters cruise past the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles 9-4 in Game 4 of the Pacific League Climax Series second stage on Saturday afternoon.

The Fighters, who had an automatic one-win advantage, seized their fourth victory of the best-of-six series and clinched the third Japan Series appearance in four years.

“I don’t feel like we’ve clinched (the Japan Series),” Nippon Ham skipper Masataka Nashida said with a smile at a postgame hero interview before a full-house crowd of 42,328 at Sapporo Dome after the game.

“But now we’ve surpassed Rakuten and would like to enter the series proudly.”

It was again Sledge who supplied the heroics. With the Fighters up 6-4 in the eighth, the American left-handed slugger connected on a Hisashi Iwakuma fastball.

Rakuten’s ace hurler had just been sent to the mound as a reliever, and Sledge crushed the pitch into the right-field bleachers, which were filled with Eagles fans, for a three-run shot.

“I didn’t understand,” Sledge, who hammered a walk-off grand slam in the series opener on Wednesday, said of his opponent’s decision to use Iwakuma, who threw 125 pitches in Game 2.

“But that’s not my job but theirs. I know I had a job to do. That was it that mattered. I didn’t care who was going to be on the mound. I just tried to get my job done.”

Nippon Ham quickly scored four runs in the first couple of innings, knocking out Rakuten rookie starter Hiromichi Fujiwara (0-1), who gave up five hits and four earned runs.

But the men in crimson red answered back on RBI hits by Fernando Seguignol and Ryuji Miyade to cut to the deficit to 4-3 in the fourth.

The Fighters were silenced for four frames by Koji Aoyama, who relieved Fujiwara from the third. But they came through again, adding two runs on a pair of RBI singles, including Shinya Tsuruoka’s lucky infield hit to make it 6-3 in the seventh.

Rakuten scored one run back in the top of the eighth. But the Fighters pulled away away on Sledge’s aforementioned blast, his fifth career NPB postseason homer.

PL save leader Hisashi Takeda pitched the ninth to wrap up the game and the series.

“It’s good. Everybody was worried that we had a little layoff (during the first stage of the CS). But the team responded,” said Sledge, who was named the series MVP. “But this is not our ultimate goal, we have one more series and we want to win it.”

Hichori Morimoto had a big day for Nippon Ham as well. The outfielder went 4-for-5 with a two-run homer, scoring two runs. Sledge was 3-for-3 with five RBIs.

“It was a tough series,” said Morimoto, reflecting on the second stage. “Rakuten had the momentum from the first stage (against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks) and these four days were pretty hard. It was a series that it wouldn’t have been strange at all no matter which side had won.”

On the contrary, cleanup hitter Shinji Takahashi said that he was able to enjoy the games.

“With the enthusiastic cheers by our fans, I played comfortably and had fun,” said the first baseman, who went 5-for-13 with five RBIs in the series. “There was no pain at all.”

Fighters southpaw starter Shugo Fujii (1-0), who pitched three perfect innings to start the game, gave up five hits and three earned runs in five innings of work.

Said Nippon Ham shortstop Makoto Kaneko: “(Rakuten’s) pitchers are good, and if we were too passive, we would’ve been beaten. So we just tried to do what we’ve been doing normally, which isn’t an easy thing but is an important thing at the end of the day.”